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Mass Incarceration in the United Kingdom

| May 18, 2017



            The United Kingdom has recently witnessed an increase in the number of prisoners incarcerated. The first surge occurred during Prime Minister Thatcher’s reign. Running a prison became a business, when the first privately run institution opened in the United Kingdom, in 1992 (Panchamia 2012).  The increased need for spaces due to higher rate of imprisonment  led to the emergence of the prison-industrial complex, whereby people were incarcerated without a mechanism for reintegrating them back to the society. Prisons became contracted out, and the influence of the government was reduced. As Panchamia (2012) concludes, ten percent of the prisons in the United Kingdom and Wales are currently contracted out. Davis (1998: 3) states: “while government-run prisons are often in gross violation of international human rights standards, private prisons are even less accountable”.

The emergence of these prison-industrial complexes is attributed to the criminological theory, hinged on the conflict theory, arguing that t there is a  struggle between different groups (Akers 1979: 527).Crime is perceived as a function of the conflict within any society based on Marxist theory, calming   that social and economic situations facilitate criminal activities. This paper argues that the emergence of the prison-industrial complex in England and Wales was attributed to mass incarceration, the lack of effective social policy, and early interventions.

Mass Incarceration

Mass incarceration is characterized by the removal of people from communities and taking them to  prisons.  (Newburn 2002: 165). Sparks and McNeill (2009) define mass incarceration as restricting the freedom of a group of people, subjecting them to surveillance and regulation, while increasing their dependency.  According to a recent publication by Wacquant (2001), the plain aim of prison complexes and mass incarceration is to segregate people. The author goes further, and compares prisons with Ghettos. Focusing in the American context, the article highlights the impact of class segregation on the demographics of prison population. The above argument is powerful, as both prisons and ghettos are considered to be places extremely hard to escape from. The main aim of mass incarceration is to remove the criminal from the neighbourhood to ensure that they are detained. Often this priority means that prisoners are denied rehabilitative facilities (Harnett 2011: 7). As an implication,  prisons become areas for punitive segregation, for the criminals who must be removed from the society. Therefore, most of these prisons are detention centres where people enter  a perpetual cycle of incarceration for crimes committed because of their economic need.

Davis (1998) states that prisons are not providing adequate solution for crime or social issues. The author goes further, claiming that prisons reflect that racial bias and social injustice of the society. Studying American prison population, the author states that “the political economy of prisons relies on racialized assumptions of criminality – such as images of black welfare mothers reproducing criminal children – and on racist practices in arrest, conviction, and sentencing patterns” (Davis 1998: 2).  The defining features of mass incarceration are that it is characterized by comparatively high number of people in prisons. In Reagan’s United States prosecution patterns and conviction rates increased the proportionate representation of  African Americans and Hispanics,  as well as those from lower socio-economic statuses (Wacquant 2010, p. 74). This was during the New Deal and Great Society, which contributed a lot towards  the increasing trend of  mass incarcerations, and the adoption of the prison-industrial complex system that emphasized governance through punitive acts (Downes 2001, p. 62).

At the advent of economic reforms introduced by Britain’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, the rising rate of unemployment hit  the working class the most. With the  labour market in crisis,   urban areas had to bear the burden of  the high proportion of lower class and unemployed population. As social issues increased, the government resorted to the creation of a prison-industrial complex, to deal with the people that suffered most (Wehr 2015, p. 6). The newly created prison-industrial complex that emphasized mass incarceration was based on cultural bias and social injustice (Sparks and McNeill, 2009). These institutions symbolised thee society’s thoughts and prejudice,  suggesting that the degradation of a person may be a way to solve the social conflict. As a result, the British  society started to increasingly rely on  criminological theories to support mass incarceration of the lower classes, whereby the prison-industrial complexes become a large enterprise for the state.

Democracy, Inclusion and Social Policy

            It is worth noting that mass incarceration in England and Wales led to the economic and social exclusion of people within the prisons. This segregation and incarceration endangered democracy (Sparks and McNeill, 2009). In line with the conflict criminological theory, mass incarceration of offenders who mostly belong to a particular race or class enhanced the structures of oppression and privilege (Van 2007, p. 189). This occurred when mass incarceration gave undue advantage to one group as opposed to another. Today, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, it is  evident that  people of colour or lower classes are disproportionally overrepresented within the prison-industrial complex. While the mass prison complex created privilege to higher classes, it created a situation whereby the victims were stigmatized, criminalized, and did not enjoy the privileges of democracy and inclusion. The economic and social drivers of mass incarceration are explained by Downes (2006), who confirms that there is an inverse relationship between a state’s spending on welfare and imprisonment rates.

Mass incarceration also hindered democracy by preventing means through which people could share ideas or communication (Young 2000, p. 208). An incarcerated person experienced political disempowerment and a lack of influence, power, while he became extremely dependent on the prison complex (Travis 2002, p. 19).  Despite several attempts of inclusion, provision for rehabilitation, training, and work opportunities,  current social policies  have not been successful in reinstating the equal representation of lower classes, and the mass incarceration continues. (Reiman 2004, p. 5).


            The above review of publications and research studies, it is evident that the conflict theory accurately explains the emergence of mass incarceration during the reign of Thatcher in the United Kingdom, and Reagan in the United States. Historically, the upper class, that was more advantaged socially, economically and politically created laws and policies that increasingly criminalized the less powerful, creating a policy of segregation. Increased incarceration within the prison-industrial complex removed people who were not wanted. Apart from enhancing exclusion and stifling democracy, it helped the powerful class to maintain its influence, wealth and position within the society.


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Young, I. M. 2000. Inclusion and Democracy. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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